What’s British About Meat? A Historical Genealogy of the “Sausage Wars” in Three Acts

Close-up of ten sausages on a grill. The sausages have been browned, and some have begun to split. and another cut of meat is seen top right.

Jack Hanlon

In the negotiations following the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, sausages became an unlikely point of contention. After more than a year of trade negotiations, and a fair amount of political theatricality from the British government, in October 2021 the EU proposed a “national identity exemption clause” facilitating the free (or freer) movement of sausages produced in Britain.[i] Whilst this was a largely symbolic victory with a small impact on the national economy, the tabloid press quickly heralded an imminent victory in the “sausage wars.”[ii]

This political controversy is but the most recent episode in the long history of the relationship between meat and nationalism. Nation building and national identity projects have frequently focused on meat as a symbol of masculine virility and national strength.[iii] In eighteenth-century London these associations became particularly influential, with elite dining clubs such as “The Sublime Society of Beefsteaks” presiding over “Britain’s highly evolved beef cult.”[iv] Like in the post-Brexit “sausage wars,” meat for these eighteenth-century patriots was a perfect distillation of a “plain and simple,” common sense, national character in the face of an impoverished, frivolous, bureaucratic, or effeminate Europe.[v]

There is more than theatricality and identity politics at stake here. For hundreds of years, this symbolic association between nationhood and meat has had political, dietary, and ecological implications stretching across the globe. In his recent book Diet for a Large Planet, the historian Chris Otter traces the “meatification” of the western diet back to the height of imperial Britain, when “global power was achieved via unprecedented command over the metabolization of animal protein.”[vi] The correlation between the expansion of the British empire and its meat-heavy diet became “proof” of a link between progress and meat consumption; conversely “backwardness and meatlessness became synonymous.”[vii] Today, with the environmental and health costs of this industrial, meat-heavy diet starker than ever, the symbolic associations between meat and nation continue to shape policy: Henry Dimbleby, author of the “National food strategy for England” (2020) policy paper, reportedly avoided recommending a “meat tax” for fear of rioting in the streets,[viii] previously citing the cloying power of meat’s nationalist mythology.[ix] While this idea was initially tied specifically to notions of Englishness, through the imperial expansion of the nineteenth century meat came to be seen as British.[x] In the post-colonial period, the nationalist politics of meat traverses the two, but the basic formula remains: meat represents national strength, while a sausage ban is the ultimate emasculation.

Meat has long resonated with ideas of English/British nationhood, but the logic that sustains this symbolic connection and how it has been used have shifted over time. This article examines the changing national meanings of meat against the backdrop of Britain’s shifting place in global food politics. Starting in the early modern period, it traces “British meat” through the rise and subsequent decline of empire, eventually arriving at Brexit and the sausage wars. Taking this longue durée approach helps to “historicize meat culture”—to explain, rather than assume, the way we have come to value, produce, and consume animal flesh. As Robert Chiles and Amy Fitzgerald have demonstrated, tracing meat culture’s historical genealogies is a crucial move in deconstructing the “normalized/naturalized” assumptions that permeate public and academic discussions of meat consumption.[xi] 

Drawing together existing work on multiple time periods with original archival research, this article makes an intervention in recent literature on food and nationalism.[xii] Inspired by Michaela DeSoucey’s notion of “gastronationalism,” much recent work has focused on the ways national cuisines are (re)invented, reified, and practiced in the context of neoliberal globalisation.[xiii] Focusing upon earlier periods, cultural historians have examined the significance of particular ingredients and dishes in the construction of national cultures and identities.[xiv] Some particularly compelling recent works have combined this cultural focus on national cuisine and identity with a historical examination of political economy and the development of global food systems.[xv] Joshua Specht’s Red Meat Republic, for example, explores the construction of the American “Beef-Cattle complex,” showing how a cultural taste for red meat was tied up with the development of American capitalism and the appropriation of Indigenous land.[xvi]  Drawing on the work of “food regime” scholars such as Harriet Friedmann, as well as historians such as Specht and Otter, there is further scope to historicise national food cultures against the backdrop of evolving global capitalist economies.[xvii] Future scholarship on food and nationalism should consider not only how the importance of celebrated national dishes and ingredients endure, but how their nationhood is re-inscribed as the very form and function of nations and nationalism has developed over time.

Tracing a historical genealogy of the post-Brexit sausage wars, this article asks: what exactly has been–and continues to be–British about meat? To answer this question, I focus on three historical junctures at which meat has mattered to English/British nationalism in a distinct manner: as a symbol that tied national character to the nation’s landscape in the early modern period (Act 1); as an excessive dietary novelty that marked Britain as a powerful empire from the late-eighteenth to mid-twentieth century (Act 2); and, since the 1990s, as a “common sense” sphere of national production and sovereignty to be defended in the context of neo-liberal globalization (Act 3). Whilst the terrain of meaty nationalism has shifted from a concern with national consumption to one for national production, I argue that cultural tropes and narratives from the early modern and imperial period continue to inform the politics of British meat today.

Act I: Beef and Land

Meat is a medium particularly “rich in social meaning”—a substance that gathers potent (if varying) symbolic power across continents, cultures, and time periods.[xviii] In almost all religious and secular cultures, the flesh of specific animals is deemed too holy or dirty to eat (e.g. cows in Hinduism, pigs in Judaism and Islam, or horse in many secular western cultures), while the flesh of other animals is considered edible meat.[xix] The consumption of these suitable forms of flesh has often been understood as literally life-giving, offering the eater the life force of the animal. Particularly in the early modern period, this direct relationship between consumption and identity had implications for the collective as well as the individual, as proto-nationalist ideologies began to explain “national character” in terms of a close-knit relationship between land, climate, food, and diet.[xx] Within this framework, the production and consumption of meat was understood as part of a cyclical, seasonal relation to the land of the nation—a cycle that symbolically traversed primarily through the nation’s masculine subjects. As Ben Rogers observes, “what better symbolises the ‘blood and soil’ of the nation than a bloody slice of beef from a cow fed on grass?”[xxi]

These associations gained particular traction in England during the sixteenth century. The enclosure of common land and the intensification of animal rearing in Scotland and Ireland led to an increase in the amount of meat available for consumption in English cities.[xxii] An Italian merchant visiting London in 1562, wrote that it was “almost impossible to believe” the amount of meat eaten in the city.[xxiii] In poorer communities in the rest of the country, carnivorous consumption was not as widespread as this visitor assumed, but the idea that England was a nation of heavy meat eaters—or more specifically beef-eaters—became well established.[xxiv] In the medical language of the time, beef was a “cold” foodstuff, and thus well suited to the cold-climate “constitution” of the English. As Steven Shapin writes, there was a kind of circular reasoning at work here: “beef-eating not only agreed with English natures; it helped to make English natures.”[xxv] In other words, the English liked eating beef because they were English, and by eating more beef, maintained and developed their Englishness. 

Two hundred years later, Jean-Jacques Rousseau observed the same heavy meat consumption, but, less impressed, argued that this was responsible for “something harsh that smacks of barbarity” in the English national character.[xxvi] These negative connotations in many ways intensified England’s meaty nationalism and began to give it the specifically anti-French—and broadly anti-European—orientation that it maintains to this day. An opposition developed between English and French sensibilities that centered around culinary habits and particularly the consumption of beef. The famous English printmaker and political satirist William Hogarth depicted the French as famished from their vegetarian diet—their lack of political liberty synonymous with their meagre meat consumption. But it was not only the quantity of meat consumed that mattered: the English were also said to be distinguished by their “plain and simple” cooking techniques. As Hannah Glasse, one of Britain’s first celebrity cookery writers, quipped in The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747), if one was to follow the French fashion for serving meat with “sauces,” one might as well “boil a leg of Mutton in Champagne.”[xxvii]

Influential conservative politicians in the eighteenth century rallied around beef as a symbol of national liberty. They formed dining clubs such as the Sublime Society of Beef Steaks, embossing their club badges and gold rings with pictures of meat grills.[xxviii] For this elite group of men, consuming vast quantities of bloody meat was a way of demonstrating and performing masculinity and nationhood. These ideas eventually trickled down into popular culture, memorialized in songs and ballads such as “The Roast Beef of Old England” and the early-twentieth-century music hall hit “Boiled Beef and Carrots.”[xxix] 

Act II: “The South American Roast Beef of Old England”[xxx]

In an increasingly industrialized and urbanized Britain, ‘The Roast Beef of Olde England’ transitioned from an elite symbol of national distinctiveness into an essential fuel that powered the working-class labor of the world’s foremost industrial power. By the 1860s, however, the demand for meat from industrial towns and cities was outgrowing the productive potential of the nation’s agricultural land, and contemporaries feared a “meat famine.” [xxxi] In a Country Gentleman’s Magazine article entitled, “The Great Meat Question” (1872), the author concluded: “Meat we must have if we are to keep up the stamina of the British nation…and if we cannot get it at home we must get it from abroad.”[xxxii]

The practice of importing live cattle on ships had existed for some time, but it was only in the 1870s and 1880s that breakthroughs in technologies of mechanical refrigeration gave rise to an international trade in chilled and frozen “dead meat.”[xxxiii] Chilled beef from America arrived on the British market in the 1870s, quickly followed by experimental cargoes of frozen lamb from Australia and New Zealand. By the turn of the twentieth century, it was chilled beef from Argentina that was doing the most to answer “Britain’s Call For Overseas Supplies.”[xxxiv] Whilst the number of exporting countries was proliferating, the bulk of this trade continued to land in English ports: well into the 1930s, the practice of importing vast quantities of basic foodstuffs remained a British novelty. [xxxv]  Whilst only a proportion of this meat was coming from within the formal confines of the British Empire (primarily Australia and New Zealand), the industry was deeply entangled with British Imperialism. It was the economics of empire that made this imported meat so cheap for British consumers, and it was British investment capital that had built the infrastructure of the international trade in dead meat. In view of recent scholarship on environmental colonialism and “the imperialism of free trade,” meat producing countries such as Argentina can be thought of as part of an “informal empire,” crucial to the extractive economics of British Imperialism.[xxxvi]

This new system soon developed an aura of necessity, woven into narratives of national character and distinctiveness. In 1938, the chief meat inspector for the City of London Corporation began an article in The Journal of State Medicine as such: “As far back as I can trace, the British public have always required more beef, mutton and pork, than their country could produce.”[xxxvii] By the 1930s, imported meat accounted for around half of British meat consumption, and in London this figure rose to nearly three quarters.[xxxviii] The fabled “Roast Beef of Olde England” still resonated with ideas of national character, but the beef on British tables was now more likely to come from the great plains of Argentina than from the hills of Devon or Somerset. This paradox was not lost on contemporaries, as the superintendent of Smithfield Market wryly noted in 1921, “the vast multitudes of people contained in the Metropolis [depend] mainly upon [the] South American Roast Beef of Old England.”[xxxix] 

Whilst only a proportion of this meat was coming from within the formal confines of the British Empire (primarily Australia and New Zealand), the industry was deeply entangled with British Imperialism.

These developments did not come without their own anxieties and contradictions. By untying the relationship between diet and land, the outsourcing of production undermined some of the reasons meat consumption had been held in such high esteem in national mythology. As many had feared from the start, these vast imports of cheap meat “nearly ruined British agriculture.”[xl] Furthermore, the middle-class, “men of science and industry” who invented these new systems worked on the assumption that this imported meat would be for the working class, while the middle and upper classes would continue to feast on British meat. To their dismay, working class consumers were at first resistant to the products of their experimentation. Novel modes of preservation—canning, drying, freezing—produced foods with unusual textures and dubious smells. Even when refrigeration made the material difference between “home” and “foreign” meat less drastic, many remained unconvinced.[xli] Advertising campaigns, newsreels, and public events encouraged consumers to buy imperial meat, whilst also typically acknowledging the superiority of “home killed.” In 1933, for example, a “great Empire display of pork, mutton and beef” was organized at Smithfield Market, where representatives from New Zealand and Australia had their carcases judged by “London experts.” The event was filmed by the country’s largest newsreel company, British Pathé, whose newsreels were distributed widely in British cinemas at the time.[xlii] The message to the public was clear: when it comes to meat, “If it Isn’t British, see its Empire!”[xliii]

The British traders, stockbreeders and “gentleman farmers,” who had been key players in the international meat industry since its inception, worked hard to retain a credible sense of “Britishness” in the meat they were producing in the Americas and Antipodes.[xliv] Cattle from the British mainland were shipped abroad, along with grasses, farming techniques, and technologies. The Cattle intensive farming practices of settler colonialism decimated Indigenous communities and remade the ecology of places such as New Zealand. As Rebecca Woods has argued, this system and the breeds of animal it produced were, “designed to grow British meat in the absence of British pastures.”[xlv] The national credentials of this global meat both puzzled and animated those within the industry. In the 1930s, a discussion emerged within the meat industry around the labelling, or “ticketing” of carcasses: should meat be categorized according to the country it was born in, reared in, or slaughtered in? Weighing in on this debate in his annual report, the superintendent of London’s Smithfield Market clarified his own position with an analogy: “whilst it is certain that a well-preserved Chinaman killed in this country would no more be termed an Englishman than an Englishman killed in China would be termed a Chinaman, it is equally certain that a retailer buying “Sotch” meats would not ticket such meats as “English” or “Irish.””[xlvi]

Questions surrounding the provenance of meat became tangled up with questions of race, nationality, land, and identity. As Sushmita Chatterjee and Banu Subramaniam contend in their recent anthology, meat is an unstable political category: “a site of transnational flows, colonial circuits, and varied mediated significations of gender, race and class.”[xlvii] In the post-war period, the Port of London Health Authority—the administrative body that had long been concerned with checking for infectious meat on incoming ships—took on the responsibility of checking the health of citizens arriving from former colonies. As a promotional video from 1960 explains, this was all part of The Corporation of London’s ancient function: “national watchdog in the public interest.”[xlviii] Like meat, (post)colonial citizens simultaneously powered and threatened the nation.

But Britain’s colonial citizens were not the only thing ‘coming home’ in the post-war period. As formal and informal empires fell apart, the Agricultural Act of 1947 brought a shift towards greater levels of self-sufficiency.[xlix]  As food regime scholars have noted, this moment market the shift from an Anglo- to an American-centric global food system.[l] Argentina, Britain’s foremost supplier of beef, leveraged Britain’s vast war time debt to nationalize the British-owned railways that sustained its meat industry, simultaneously declaring “Argentina’s economic independence” and cutting Britain off from its major foreign meat supplier.[li] Many of the industrial agricultural techniques that had been pioneered abroad to feed the metropole were now returning to the British mainland, remaking farming culture and ecologies in less than desirable ways.[lii] Whilst this intensification of British agriculture is often framed as an American import, Chris Otter has demonstrated how this style of agriculture—and the global food system it made possible—in reality has its roots in the ideology, investment capital, and industrial hunger of nineteenth-century Britain. The Industrial Revolution in the British mainland had always been powered by the cheap “meat, wheat and sugar” it could extract from its globe-spanning agricultural hinterland.[liii] And it was in this hinterland that the industrialization of agriculture—from industrial methods of slaughter to mechanical modes of wheat threshing—had been pioneered and developed.[liv] Industrial agriculture, then, was perhaps less an alien import to post-war Britain, than a protracted process of the Imperial food system’s (chlorinated) chickens coming home to roost.[lv]

Act III: “Eat British Beef […] and Stop Talking Bollocks”[lvi]

After the Second World War, the UK began to produce increasing amounts of its own meat, and after joining the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973, even began to export some of this produce across the continent.[lvii] In this new context, the Britishness of meat came once again to be defined in its relation to Europe, but recast in an ongoing tussle for sovereignty amidst the rules and regulations of the common market. In part, this is a story of Britain’s post-colonial transition: once pulling resources from a globally-spanning agricultural hinterland and setting the tone for the global food market, Britain suddenly became a peripheral power, forced to play by the rules set by America, and more recently, the EU.[lviii] As Spiering Menno has argued, the globe-trotting confidence of the “Eating Englishman” gave way to the fear of being eaten, that is, consumed by the EU.[lix] As with other areas of national culture, the discourse around meat sought to salvage older and simpler ideas of sovereignty and tradition from the complexities of the Britain that empire had left behind.

This transition also reflects a broader reconfiguration of the global food system that has taken place over the last half-century. As the food regime scholar Harriet Friedmann writes, “the neoliberal project that took shape in the 1980s had specific goals for agriculture and food, specifically their inclusion for the first time in trade agreements.”[lx] As discussed in Act II, the globalization of food was nothing new, but the incorporation of food policy within multi-lateral trade agreements and expansive trans-national regulatory frameworks was a novel development. In this section, I outline how Britain’s meaty nationalism was re-inscribed amidst these developments as a site for contesting national sovereignty. Cultural tropes and ideas of nationhood with their routes in imperial—as well as early modern—Britain were re-enlivened and made to matter in new ways. In this context, it was control over meat production—rather than quantity of meat consumption—that became a flashpoint for national identity politics.

These developments were most clearly articulated in 1996 when, following an outbreak of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE)—colloquially known as mad cow disease—the European Union placed an import ban on British beef. For years the British government had continually denied any link between BSE in cattle and Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), a new and invariably fatal degenerative brain condition in humans. Even when the government was forced to admit the link was real (177 people have died of vCJD in the UK since its admission[lxi]), the EU’s on-going import ban was met with an outpouring of nationalist vitriol. Fearing a collapse in consumer confidence at home, Conservative Member of Parliament John Gummer decided to take matters into his own hands. In a scene reminiscent of the archetypal “Beef and Liberty!” Englishman of eighteenth-century political culture (whose “courage [was] matched only by his stupidity”),[lxii] Gummer proceeded to feed his 5 year-old daughter a beef burger live on television to ‘prove’ it was safe to eat.[lxiii] This was an extraordinarily devastating and traumatic period for farming communities: over four million cattle were slaughtered and destroyed, and many farms never recovered.[lxiv] Yet the momentum the story developed in the national press soon led in an entirely different direction, becoming a “test case for whether the European Union was really in Britain’s interest.”[lxv] As Ben Rogers has argued, the intense “shame and anger” that surrounded this crisis revealed the significance of beef in constructions of nationhood. As one popular British tabloid put it: “hands off our cows. Eat British Beef […] and stop talking bollocks.”[lxvi]

Even when the government was forced to admit the link was real (177 people have died of vCJD in the UK since its admission[lxi]), the EU’s on-going import ban was met with an outpouring of nationalist vitriol.

A similar national meat crisis ensued in 2013 when traces of horse DNA were found in frozen beef lasagnes. Crisis and scares related to the contamination of processed food have been a constituent feature of modern food systems, a by-product of the growing gulf between production and consumption. While in the Victorian Era these anxieties were focused upon local villains—the rogue butcher or “scandalous sausage maker” —the perpetrators of transnational crisis like the “horse meat scandal” have proved harder to locate. [lxvii] Many in the press placed the blame on Romanian and Bulgarian food standards agencies and the EU policies that allowed their contaminated products to enter the UK.[lxviii] The horsemeat scandal ultimately combined well-established fears of food contamination with parallel anxieties regarding national sovereignty: the contamination of the frozen lasagnes stood for the contamination of the national body.

A parallel discourse focused specifically on the horse meat itself. Moral and ethical judgements about the consumption of different kinds of meat came to the fore, with horsemeat consumption cast as a disgusting European habit that set Britain apart from the rest of the EU.[lxix] These discussions also channelled pre-existing cultural scripts that framed meat consumption as a vector of civilization. In the gaze of imperial Britain, the consumption of less meat and lesser meats (i.e. horse or offal) was a tell-tale sign of a lacklustre civilization. For example, in a ‘scientific’ travelogue entitled The Curiosities of Food published in London in 1859, Peter Lund Simmons explores the “outrageously repulsive” types of animal flesh consumed elsewhere in the world: “all nations have not…butchers’ shops graced with all the tempting joints of beef, mutton, and pork, which gladden the eyes of an Englishman, and keep up his stamina for labour.”[lxx] In contemporary Britain, certain prime cuts of meat continue to represent whiteness and Englishness in the face of uncivilized others and their meat cultures. As Alex Rhys-Taylor has demonstrated, these dynamics were laid bare in the media outcry around “bush meat” at London’s multicultural Ridley Road Market in the early 2000s.[lxxi]

The speed with which these contemporary news stories about agriculture and meat production morphed into tales about nationhood is especially revealing. In both cases, cultural scripts of meaty nationalism from the early modern and colonial periods were channelled into contemporary concerns about the sovereignty of the nation and its food production. When the UK voted to leave the European Union in 2017, these reports provided the rhetorical blueprint for how meat landed at the center of debates concerning national strength and sovereignty. Indeed, the sausage wars grew out of this recent lineage of anti-European meaty nationalism: if British meat was undermined and humiliated by the EU in wake of the BSE outbreak and horsemeat scandal, Brexit—at least for its promoters—offered a chance for redemption. It provided a chance to not only regain regulatory control over national food production, but also re-enliven trade with the meat-producing countries that had sustained Britain in its imperial heyday, especially Australia.[lxxii] The British Prime Minister’s preoccupations with the free-movement of British sausages in the post-Brexit trade negotiations should be understood against this backdrop.[lxxiii]

Postscript: An Unravelling?

Contradictions remain in the contemporary politics of British meat. The UK livestock industry annually imports over 1 million tonnes of soya animal feed from South America, meaning that even “British meat” usually has a geographical and ecological footprint stretching well beyond the British Isles.[lxxiv] The xenophobic and often racist rhetoric of meaty nationalism belies the reality of an industry that not only reflects, but also relies upon Britain’s diversity. As Jessica Fagin has recently demonstrated, the Halal sector is the fastest growing part of the British meat industry, with many non-Muslim slaughterhouses re-orienting so as to cater to this demand.[lxxv] Furthermore, the industry relies heavily on poorly paid migrant labor from the EU—a contradiction with its often anti-European rhetoric. Brexit has resulted in severe labor shortages in abattoirs and meat processing plants.[lxxvi] Recently the industry has turned to prison inmates to fill this gap, reflecting the peculiar position that meat occupies in national imaginaries: central and peripheral, heralded and shunned. Meat might be one of our most highly valued foodstuffs, yet this value rarely translates into respect, care, or proper wages for those that work in the industry.[lxxvii]

Just a few days after the sausage wars came to a close, a group of researchers from Oxford published a report showing that meat consumption in the UK had fallen by 17% over the last decade, reflecting the growing acknowledgement of the environmental and health costs of high meat consumption.[lxxviii]  At the same time, meat-free alternative proteins continue to surge in both sales and popularity. Is the nationalist politics of meat beginning to unravel? Far from a symbol of national progress and supremacy, meat has become “the stuff of climate, food scares, cancer risks, and corporate cover-ups in recent public discourses.”[lxxix] The media coverage surrounding this fall in national meat consumption was a far cry from the ideas of national strength and virility that animated the “meat famine” discourse of the nineteenth century. The cultural script that tied quantity of meat consumption to ideas of national strength and progress seems to be breaking.

These recent developments are the culmination of a shift over the last 70 years, whereby the Britishness of meat has shifted from concerns regarding consumption, to primarily those concerning production and provision. Nation and meat were once linked primarily through the rubric of consumption: British people ate more meat than most, and this was seen as proof and practice of national strength. This logic of carnivorous national consumption has lost its symbolic resonance. And yet, at the same time, the politics of meat regulation, trading negotiations, and farming practices have taken on an inflated role in public discourse, from the BSE crisis to the specter of chlorinated chickens.[lxxx] The way meat is produced, where it’s imported from, and who decides on slaughter regulations are the new preoccupations of meaty nationalism. 

The situation in the UK also reflects a broader evolution in the relationship between food and identity. Concerns over production practices have increasingly become part of the way we—as consumers and eaters—engage with the significance of food. As Steven Shapin argues, in contrast to the direct dietary analogies of the early modern period, “the modern ‘you’ in ‘You are what you eat’ is…partly made up of technical expertise and state authority.”[lxxxi] Although eating large quantities of beef doesn’t read as English or British like it once did, buying the ‘right’ meat from the ‘right’ place still carries a sense of national belonging. The identity politics of food is not just about the food you literally consume, it’s also about where you eat and where you shop. It’s about the language you use around food, and the supply chains you trace, support, or boycott. Such is the same for national food identity as well: it’s not so much about what the nation’s subjects consume, but the ways the food industry and market is regulated, shaped, and represented. Even in a country that now prefers pizza and fish fingers to roast beef or cottage pie,[lxxxii] the production of meat remains entangled with the (re)production of Britishness itself.

[i] Specifically, this was about the movement of chilled meat products from the British mainland into Northern Ireland. Whilst Northern Ireland has left the EU with the rest of the United Kingdom, it remains in a unique position because of its soft border with the Republic of Ireland (which is still part of the EU). This unique position resulting from Brexit has been orchestrated through the Northern Ireland Protocol. “Brexit: EU to make offer to end ‘sausage wars.’” BBC News, October 8, 2021, accessed January 8, 2022. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-58840823.

[ii] David Wilcock, “UK set to win Sausage war,” Daily Mail Online, October 8, 2021, accessed January 7, 2022. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-10073409/UK-set-win-sausage-war-EU-prepares-British-bangers-Northern-Ireland-exemption.html.

[iii] See: Sydney Watts, Meat Matters: Butchers, Politics and Market Culture in Eighteenth Century Paris (Woodbridge, UK: Boydell & Brewer, 2006); Rick Dolphijn, Meatify the Weak! Cannibalism and (Post)Colonial Politics (London: Routledge, 2013).

[iv] Tom Almeroth-Williams, “The Story of Smithfield Market,” The London Journal 36, no.1 (2011): 74.

[v] For a discussion of the eighteenth century national “beef cult,” see: Ben Rogers, Beef and Liberty (London: Vintage Publishing, 2003).

[vi] Chris Otter, Diet for a Large Planet: Industrial Britain, Food Systems and World Ecology (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2020), 22.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Dimitris Mavrokefalidis, “Would a meat tax lead to riots,” Energy Live News, June 28, 2021, accessed January 7, 2022. https://www.energylivenews.com/2021/06/28/would-a-meat-tax-lead-to-riots/.

[ix] Henry Dimbleby, “A Meaty Problem,” BBC Radio 4,December 22, 2015, accessed January 7, 2022. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06s9d26.

[x] Whilst these terms might have specific constitutional meanings, when it comes to questions of culture, identity, and nationhood, they are far more slippery and changeable.

[xi] Robert Chiles and Amy Fitzgerald, “Why is meat so important in Western history and culture? A genealogical critique of biophysical and political-economic explanations,” Agriculture and Human Values 35,(2018): 1-17.

[xii] For an overview of recent work, see: Atsuko Ichijo, “Food and Nationalism: Gastronationalism Revisited,” Nationalities Papers 48, no.2 (2020): 215-223.

[xiii] Michaela Desoucey, “Gastronationalism: Food Traditions and Authenticity Politics in the European Union,” American Sociological Review 75, no.3 (2009): 432-455.

[xiv] Stephen Mennel, All Manners of Food: Eating and Taste in England and France from the Middle Ages to the Present (New York: Blackwell, 1985).

[xv] Otter, Diet for a Large Planet.

[xvi] Joshua Specht, Red Meat Republic: A Hoof to Table History of how Beef Changed America (Princeton, NJ: Prinecton University Press, 2019).

[xvii] Harriet Friedman, “Feeding the Empire: The Pathologies of Globalised Agriculture,” Socialist Register 41, (2005): 124-140.

[xviii] Nick Fiddes, Meat: A Natural Symbol (London: Routledge, 1991).

[xix] Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: Routledge, 1995 [1966]), 31-32.

[xx] Steven Shapin, “‘You are what you eat’: Historical Changes in Ideas about Food and Identity,” Historical Research 87, no. 237 (2014): 377-392.

[xxi] Rogers, Beef and Liberty, 3.

[xxii] Peter Linebaugh, “Enclosures from the Bottom Up,” Radical History Review, no.108 (2010): 12.

[xxiii] Rogers, Beef and Liberty, 11.

[xxiv] Ibid, 9-11.

[xxv] Shapin, “‘You are what you eat,’” 385.

[xxvi] Spencer K. Wertz, “Taste and Food in Rousseau’s Julie, or the New Heloise,” The Journal of Aesthetic Education 47, no.3 (2013): 26.

[xxvii] Rogers, Beef and Liberty, 68.

[xxviii] “London Beef-Steak Club Badge,” gilded and engraved silver, 1801, (British Museum), MG. 1067.  Accessed January 7, 2022. https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/C_MG-1067.  

[xxix] user: gihiuh fvjjojo, “Harry Champion – Boiled Beef and Carrots [1909],” YouTube Video, July 5, 2009, accessed September 2, 2022. https://youtu.be/7mIMIUqAa3w.

[xxx] H. W. G. Millman, “London’s Meat Supplies,” London Central Markets (Smithfield) Superintendent’s Monthly Report, April, 1921. CLA/017/LC/08/010, p.53, London Metropolitan Archives, London, EC1. https://search.lma.gov.uk/scripts/mwimain.dll/382897316/LMA_DESCRIPTION/REFD/CLA~2F017~2FLC~2F08~2F010/$/WEB_DETAIL?JUMP&ERRMSG=~5bLMA_OPAC~5dNORECORD.TXT&DATABASE=LMA_DESCRIPTION&SHARE_SESSID=LMA_SHARE_SESSID

[xxxi] Chris Otter, “Hippophagy in the UK: a failed dietary revolution,” Endeavour, 35 no.2-3 (2011): 80.

[xxxii] Otter, Diet for a Large Planet,22.

[xxxiii] James Troubridge Critchell and Joseph Raymond, A History of the Frozen Meat Trade: An Account of the Development and Present Day Methods of Preparation, Transport, and Marketing of Frozen and Chilled Meats (London: Constable and Company, 1912), 1-5.

[xxxiv] Ibid, 1.

[xxxv] Otter, Diet for a Large Planet,29.

[xxxvi] Adrian Howkins, “A Formal End to Informal Imperialism: Environmental Nationalism, Sovereignty Disputes, and the Decline of British Interests in Argentina, 1933-1955,” The British Scholar 3(2010): 235-255.

[xxxvii] Dunlop Young, “Production, Preparation and Inspection of Imported Meat,” The Journal of State Medicine (1912-1937) 37, no. 9 (1929): 506.

[xxxviii] H.W.G Millman, “London’s Meat Supplies,” London Metropolitan Archives; also see, Tim Lang, Feeding Britain: Our Food Problems and How to Fix Them (London: Penguin, 2020).

[xxxix] H. W. G. Millman, “London’s Meat Supplies,” London Metropolitan Archives.

[xl] John Brewster, “Food: From Source to Salespoint, Interview with John Brewster (5 of 25),” by Polly Russell, British Library Sounds Archive (2000), 4 mins, accessed May 10, 2022. https://sounds.bl.uk/Oral-history/Food/021M-C0821X0034XX-0005V0

[xli] Rebecca Woods, “The Shape of Meat: Preserving Animal Flesh in Victorian Britain,” Osiris 35, (2020): 123-141.

[xlii] Emily Rutherford, “Researching and Teaching with British Newsreels,” Twentieth Century British History 32, no. 3 (2021): 442.

[xliii] “If It Isn’t ‘British’, See It’s ‘Empire’!,”, British Pathé, February 9, 1933, accessed February 7, 2022. https://www.britishpathe.com/video/if-it-isnt-british-see-its-empire/query/smithfield.

[xliv] Rebecca Woods, The Herds Shot Round the World: Native Breeds and the British Empire, 1800-1900 (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2017), 5.

[xlv] Ibid, 6.

[xlvi] H.W.G. Millman, “Report To The Court of Common Council From the Central Markets Committee, Presented 22nd March, 1923,” London Central Markets (Smithfield), Annual Reports (1922-1939), p.8. CLA/017/LC/07/003, London Metropolitan Archives, London, EC1. https://search.lma.gov.uk/scripts/mwimain.dll/382897312?UNIONSEARCH&APPLICATION=UNION_VIEW&LANGUAGE=144&simple_exp=y&HISTORY=LMA_DESCRIPTION&ERRMSG=[WWW_LMA]err.htm&REPORT=WEB_SUMMARY

[xlvii] Sushmita Chatterjee and Banu Subramaniam eds., Meat! A Transnational Analysis (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021), 2.

[xlviii] “My Lord Mayor,” promotional video by City of London Corporation, 1960. COL/AC/31/012/B, London Metropolitan Archives, London, EC1. Accessed September 2, 2022. https://www.londonsscreenarchives.org.uk/title/1092/.

[xlix] Lang, Feeding Britain, 100.

[l] Friedmann, “Feeding the Empire,” 125-126.

[li] Howkins, “A Formal End to Informal Imperialism,” 246.

[lii] James Rebanks, “There are No Winners in American Farming,” Civil Eats, July 26, 2021, accessed September 2, 2022. https://civileats.com/2021/07/26/james-rebanks-there-are-no-winners-in-american-farming/.

[liii] Otter, Diet for a Large Planet, 233.

[liv] Ibid, 37; 233-234.

[lv] Processing chickens with chlorine—a common practice in the US that is banned in Europe—has become another flashpoint in discussions over the future of post-Brexit Britain. See: Julia Glotz, “Chlorinated chicken explained: why do the Americans treat their poultry with chlorine?,” The Grocer, June 12, 2020, accessed September 2, 2022. https://www.thegrocer.co.uk/food-safety/chlorinated-chicken-explained-why-do-the-americans-treat-their-poultry-with-chlorine/555618.article.

[lvi] Rod Brookes, “Newspapers and National Identity: the BSE/CJD crisis,” Media, Culture and Society 21, no. 2 (1999): 259.

[lvii] Otter, Diet for a Large Planet, 269.

[lviii] Friedmann, “Feeding the Empire”, 135.

[lix] Spiering Menno, “Food, Phagophobia, and English National Identity,” in Food, Drink and Identity in Europe, ed. Thomas Wilson (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2006): 31-48.

[lx] Friedmann, “Feeding the Empire,” 135.

[lxi] “Mad Cow Disease: what is BSE,” BBC News, October 18, 2018, accessed, May 10, 2022. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-45906585

[lxii] David A. Bell, “Ruling the Roast,” London Review of Books 25(18), September 25, 2003. https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v25/n18/david-a.-bell/ruling-the-roast.

[lxiii]  “Mad Cow Disease,” BBC News.

[lxiv] Ibid.

[lxv] Brookes, “Newspapers and National Identity,” 259.

[lxvi] Ibid.

[lxvii] Otter, Diet for a Large Planet, 119.

[lxviii] Yamsin Ibrahim and Anita Howarth, “Contamination, Deception and ‘Othering’: Media Framing of the ‘Horsemeat Scandal,’” Social Identities 23 (2017): 212-231.

[lxix] As Otter has shown, it was only in the nineteenth century, following a failed campaign to get people eating horse, that the taboo on horsemeat in the UK was consolidated and recast in an “explicitly nationalistic fashion.” Otter, “Hippophagy in the UK,” 86.

[lxx] Peter Lund Simmonds, The Curiosities of Food: Or the Dainties and Delicacies of Different Nations Obtained from the Animal Kingdom (London: Richard Bentley, 1859),17.

[lxxi] Alex Rhys-Taylor, Food and Multiculture: A Sensory Ethnography of East London (London: Taylor & Francis, 2017): 17-23.

[lxxii] Danny Kruger, “Tories have to choose between Beef and Liberty,” Un-Herd, May 19, 2020, accessed May 10, 2022. https://unherd.com/2020/05/after-brexit-britains-farmers-must-come-first/.

[lxxiii] Billy Mello Araujo, “Why are British sausages being blocked from entry into Northern Ireland? The dispute explained,” The Conversation, June 11, 2021, accessed May 10, 2022.


[lxxiv] Tom Levitt, “UK Imported 1M tonnes of Soya with Deforestation risk in 2019,” The Guardian, December 1, 2020, a accessed January 7, 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/01/uk-imported-1m-tonnes-of-soya-with-deforestation-risk-in-2019.

[lxxv] Jessica Fagin, “Lamb Dressed as Mutton: How halal mutton is re-localising sheep slaughter,” Vittles, May 2, 2022, accessed May 15, 2022. https://vittles.substack.com/p/lamb-dressed-as-mutton?s=r.

[lxxvi] Tom Espiner, “Meat Sector Warns of Brexit Production Squeeze,” BBC News, June 18, 2021, accessed January 7, 2022. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-57512243.

[lxxvii] Ella McSweeney and Holly Young, “Revealed: Exploitation of Meat Plant Workers Rife across UK and Europe,” The Guardian, September 28, 2021, accessed September 2, 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/sep/28/revealed-exploitation-of-meat-plant-workers-rife-across-uk-and-europe.

[lxxviii] Cristina Stewart et al, “Trends in UK Meat Consumption,” The Lancet 5, no. 10 (2021), accessed January 7, 2022. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanplh/article/PIIS2542-5196(21)00228-X/fulltext.

[lxxix] Alexandra Sexton, “Alternative Proteins and the non (stuff) of ‘meat,’” Gastronomica 16, no.3 (2016): 66.

[lxxx] Glotz, “Chlorinated chickens explained.”

[lxxxi] Shapin, “’You are what you eat,’” 391.

[lxxxii] Dan Hall, “Best of Britain: Britain’s most popular meals revealed,” The Sun, December 11, 2018, accessed September 5, 2022. https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/7954553/britains-most-popular-meals-revealed/.


Jack Hanlon is an interdisciplinary researcher interested in food, cities, and memory. He is currently based at Queen Mary University of London where he is completing a LAHP funded Collaborative Doctoral Award PhD on the twentieth century history of Smithfield Market (The Rise and Fall of Global Smithfield, 1890-1973: Imperial Markets, Lively Infrastructure and the Storied-Spaces of Modern Food Distribution). He is collaborating with the Museum of London as they relocate into a derelict wing of London’s historic meat market. His historical research into food and cities is informed by ongoing photographic practice and a fascination with London’s contemporary food landscape.